Creating in Community
Something happens when we get together to create. What could otherwise remain static begins to evolve organically. A co-mingling that forever alters the recipe. Chemicals react. There is a sense of something building, bubbling. The unpredictable. That which cannot entirely be controlled. Nor should it.
Watch what happens when Portland poet David Biespiel collaborates with principal Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT) dancer Gavin Larsen and musician Joshua Pearl — the trio that call themselves Incorporameno:
“I don’t know what I would have done if I had not discovered dancing. I danced for thirty years, beginning when I was a child taking my first modern dance class at the Y. We were living right next to New York City, so I was exposed to wonderful teachers. That first class was offered by an older woman who had studied under Isadora Duncan. I feel in love with dancing in my bare feet. It was a completely freeing expression. They also brought in other amazing choreographers like Alvin Alley and Merce Cunningham. I was very lucky. Even though I was a little girl, they let me take classes with the adults when these masters came. It was the most important decision my parents made for me. Shaped my entire life.”
“Such a sense of groundedness it gave me as a child. That lovely permission to be free. Using the body to create shape, being aware of space, both positive and negative, the whole idea of motion in space…Oh, I took great delight in expressing the body. Something I cherish to this day.”
“Studying dance gave me discipline.”
“Then in 2000, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was stage one, I was fortunate, but it was very difficult. Even though I caught it so soon, I did have to go through radiation, then surgery. In 2003, I was diagnosed a second time. I had to go through chemo and more invasive surgery.
When I received my cancer diagnosis, my initial response was anger. I regarded it as a huge interference. I loved living, I loved being involved in life. I’m not someone who watches life go by. I am definitely in it. So my initial response was anger. Just a few weeks prior, I had started to organize Women Reading Aloud, and I was devastated, but because I had this performance background, it was ‘The show must go on.’ And in fact I wore a wig for one of our Reading Aloud events. No one knew. Very few people in my life knew I was going through chemo at the time. One of the participants called me up afterwards to tell me how much she’d loved the event, and then she said, ‘But I have to ask you. Where do you get your haircut? I just adore it!’
So I kept writing and moving along with this creative part of my life. And without it I would have gone crazy. It’s such an interesting journey, because I certainly could never say, even to this day, even though it’s nine years later, I cannot say that the cancer was a blessing. I know that there are some people who do say it and everyone has their own perspective. What it did teach me is that I could be a more compassionate person. I could be a better giver, and from that understanding, life got larger.”
“It was really when I got cancer the second time that I found my voice as a poet. I learned how to use writing as a tool. A couple years later, I went to Scotland and I studied the Amherst Writing Method. I just fell more in love with the idea of words giving me the same freedom that I had found when my feet were connected to the floor.”
At the corner deli by the register
I see a face from before who
knows my secret.
Unsure, we both talk louder
as we back away.
She, closer to the M&M brownies
in the glass case behind her.
I, nearer to the lamb chops and
chicken breasts by the butcher.
~excerpt from “D-O-B,” from Private Landscape, Julie Maloney, Arseya Publishing, New Vernon, New Jersey, 2007.
“For the past couple of summers, I have been leading a retreat for writers which incorporates using the body, and oh my goodness, it’s been just phenomenal.”
“I ask the writers when they’re writing and reading aloud to engage all of who they are. Their whole body. It’s not so much that your body has to move with the words; I do think, however, that a poet who’s reading at the podium and who is completely engaged is a performance artist. The words have to be more than something that just rolls off the tongue. They have to come from the feet up through the belly, the chest, and then on through the throat.”
“I teach ‘Writing to Heal’ at the same hospital where I was a patient. It is the most emotional…Oh my goodness, the writing is just so incredibly inspiring. We laugh our asses off, we cry, it’s everything, and it’s all about the writing. It’s not a therapy group. What it’s about is to express oneself freely on the page. I bring in prompts. I call them ‘writers.’ We critique our pieces. They read their work aloud so that they can honor their voices. It’s just an exquisite experience in my life every week.
Getting something like cancer does make you step back. The world of cancer is such a different club. It’s not one that people are trying to get into. But once you’re in it you’re always a member. I often would say when I was going through cancer that what I was doing was creating my own army. What I learned is that the key to not only moving through cancer but also about moving through anything tough in your life, striving for anything, is about support.
When someone who has a loved one just diagnosed with cancer says to me, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I ask them, ‘Well, can you listen?’ That’s a big part of Women Reading Aloud. Listening is such a gift.”
“There’s an exercise I like to do where we’re all sitting in a circle, and I ask each writer, to one at a time, take one line from something they’ve written that night in workshop and read it to the person on their right. Gift it to them. And so that second person is leaning in and listening, taking the time to really be present, to digest. And they’re engaging the whole body. Then they, in turn, do the same thing to the person on their right, and so on all around the circle, with each person getting to be both giver and receiver. That lovely balance. And when we’re all done, we realize how connected we all are by this very real human thread.
Women have a very difficult time receiving. Many women going through cancer feel they need to be strong for everyone around her. And that’s a really tough burden. It’s hard for women to receive help.
I think this is so much what Women Reading Aloud is about. In a very professional, respectful way it raises the bar on what people believe they can do. With the support and encouragement of others.
When people walk in the door, I always say it’s not about what you’re doing outside the door, it’s what you’re doing inside here. When you come in, you are addressed as a writer. I have women from every walk of life. From a cleaning woman, to a Ph.D. from Columbia University. From retired women in their eighties, to young women in their twenties. Everyone is there for the same reason: to write, share, hear and be heard.
Being given the opportunity to express themselves creatively like this and have their voice validated changes people. I see it in the glow in their faces. Often times a writer will say about their own writing: ‘I don’t know who this is. I don’t know who this came from.’ It’s such a process of discovery. And that is a beautiful thing. In my hospital workshop especially, the stories come straight from the heart. They go very deep very quickly. And that’s where the good stuff is. That’s where it’s raw, and then we know we’re working from the place where we should be writing from. Whether we’re writing poetry or a character in a novel. Good writing, real writing is always coming from your gut.
And you can take that risk if you feel a sense of safety. It’s really about striking a sense of balance. When women come through the retreat I offer each year in Greece, I say, ‘ Enjoy the community,’ because so many women are looking to connect with other writing souls, but then I also add, ‘but also enjoy the solitude.’ I really encourage the women to sit at the taverna by themselves and look out at the Aegean Aea. I tell them, ‘You don’t have to share that with anyone. You can take that all into yourself.’ So balance. Solitude and community.”
“The more specific you are in your writing, the more universal.
Creativity is shooting from that raw place and putting that blood on the page. So that when you’re done, you can get up and return to the rest of your life. You can leave your rawness on the page. You have finally found a place for it. That’s why creativity is so therapeutic. If you don’t have a place to put all of this bubbling-up energy, then you’re going to have to carry it around inside you. Grief, sadness, you have to know how to tap in and then come back out of it. Your container is that blank page. The white space is waiting. So fill up that white space and then stand up and go for a walk.”
So there are times when circumstances in our life, often a major turning event, lead us to seek out and create community.
And then there are times when the creative community finds us.
Molly Fisk is a poet and radio commentator living in California who also leads writing workshops, both on-line and in person. When her local hospital decided to add a creating writing class to their services to cancer patients and their families, it was Fisk whom they selected to teach “Writing to Heal.”
“They auditioned I think 3 or 4 of us, and hired me because I was the only teacher who asked the students to write about their cancer experience: what they had learned, what surprised them, what they hated about it. I’m sure it helped that my mother had died of ovarian cancer the day before I taught the class, and although I considered canceling, it seemed as though cancer patients were about the only people I should be around at that point, so I went. After I was hired, I did a lot of research into writing as a tool for healing, and found the work of Jamie Pennebaker (Opening Up), which gave me a solid scientific framework to pin the writing on, because if done a particular way it really boosts the immune system.
We write about everything under the sun. I’m actually working on a book of writing exercises for cancer patients right now, and reviewing the last twelve years of prompts has been pretty funny. There isn’t much I haven’t asked them to write about. First car, first kiss, first big failure, what they want to learn next, what they would tell a child about cancer, what’s the view out their kitchen window… I think what surprises me most in this population of writers is how fast they will go deeply into any subject. It makes sense, and it’s why I like working with people who’ve had some reversals in life: cancer, a traumatic childhood history, Vietnam vets. None of them mess around with superficial ideas or platitudes. It’s very relaxing to be around them, they aren’t pretending.
The focus for them is how to recover from having been treated as if they were only a body, or only a disease, which is the way our medical system tends to function: ‘Oh, give that to the sarcoma in room 311.’ There is the big issue of being betrayed by your body, of course, and we talk a lot about that. It tends to lead us into conversations about forgiveness and the randomness of life. Why someone doesn’t get breast cancer and someone else does, who dies and who doesn’t, how unfair it all is, how to live with the unpredictability. Quite a few people in the classes have had multiple cancers, too, so we talk about that a lot. Not that many have had a cancer go into remission and then recur, it’s more that they had breast cancer fifteen years ago and now they’ve got lung cancer. We still laugh more than we cry in class though, no matter how bad things get. And this year I lost two students, so it can get pretty hard.
Though I don’t think I’m any more sensitive than most people I know, I do believe writers have a capacity to look for a long time at something, so we notice detail about how things work and what’s going on. And we writers want desperately to tell the truth and to be heard. I think artists are curious, but so is anyone with a passion. Scientists and sailors and painters and potters all want to know what happens if you turn it this way, try this gene or this glaze or point the bow due west, then what? I think there’s a nice friction in creative people between their capacity, their gift at whatever it is, and their curiosity. I mean you know the difference, don’t you? Someone like Thomas Keane churns out a thousand copies of the same cliché, while Joni Mitchell is dying to combine notes in a way no one has ever heard before, and she’s willing to annoy us all for years with cacophony while she experiments.
I completely believe we are all creative. We just have to remember what we did as kids to find that part of ourselves again.”
“Even if you were in a strict religious cult and couldn’t express yourself hardly at all, there’s something you can remember doing that was interesting to you. Braiding hair with four strands instead of three. Watching birds out the church window.
How we foster creativity is to be ourselves as deeply as possible. And doing creative things helps further that, so it’s a nice circular predicament.
I tell people to go out into their neighborhood and have some opinions for half an hour. Walk around and look at things, telling yourself what you like and what you don’t. ‘This flower smells dreadful, that car’s too square, this is a lovely arched window, I like this picket fence and I like this shape of a driveway, but these garden gnomes are NOT my thing, and I can’t stand a blue spruce, never have liked them.’ Just be emphatic for a little while, and you’ll start to feel yourself becoming more you. You’re not allowed to be wholly negative or wholly positive either, that just indicates what mood you’re in. You have to balance what you like and don’t like. Try it! It’s very refreshing to be uncensored once in a while.
Now, it might take someone a while to figure out what their medium for creativity is. I was a sweater designer for ten years before I started to write. I’m not bad at sweaters, and I still love making almost anything with my hands, but I’m a much better writer. Writing poems, when I first began, was a revelation: I had accidentally found my native language, even though I hadn’t been looking for it.”
~Eulogy for Junior Mints, Molly Fisk, from, The More Difficult Beauty, Hip Pocket Press, 2010.
“The first subject I wrote about was incest, so I’ve never felt exactly shy about subject matter. I guess I’ve had the most trouble writing about being fat. Despite that cheerful Junior Mints poem, I’ve had a hard time finding the right angle for poems about my weight. At one point I wrote ten or twelve with different weights as the titles, but that didn’t really go anywhere, it all seemed too depressing. I just wrote one recently that worked, though, so maybe I’m better-situated, or have less embarrassment about it or something. I should probably — if I were taking the advice I give my cancer patients, I would write a long poem about all the things people don’t know unless they’re fat, too: how the airplane seat belt extenders work and what it feels like to have the cup holders in movie theater seats digging into your thighs for two hours. The way people on the street look through you, so you get a chance to experience what invisibility feels like before you’re actually dead and gone.
Specificity is the way to write about anything you’re stuck on, and maybe I just need to get hellishly specific about what it’s like to be fat. It would be educational for a reader, but I’m not sure I feel driven to write about it for my own sake. I don’t really identify with being fat, to tell you the truth, even after being so for 20 years, it still doesn’t seem like the real me.”
“Favorite poems? The first contemporary poem I ever read, which is, of course, since I’m a middle-aged American white woman, Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese.’ That’s the poem that made me into a poet, in fact. And one thing about Oliver, you can like her or not but she’s the only poet I need to go read when I can’t write anything: she opens up all my doors again. Sharon Olds’s ‘The Promise,’ but not the version in her New and Selected, I memorized the original version from the New Yorker before she messed it up. Marie Howe’s ‘Part of Eve’s Discussion,’ which I think every woman might want to memorize since it expresses so well what female lives are like. Robert Frost’s ‘Reluctance.’ Stephen Vincent Benet’s ‘American Names,’ except I didn’t memorize the stanza with the n__ word in it because I couldn’t bear to. (But that’s where the great line “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” comes from.) I’ve tried to memorize Campbell McGrath’s “American Noise” about six times and keep failing. It’s a hard one. Just a long list, and there are some sound links, but not enough for me. I’m not done trying yet, though. I love that poem.
If you want to know how somebody writes, memorize one of their poems. But don’t do it unless you want those cadences in your own blood stream, because that’s where they’re going to end up.
Another big thrill I’ve had is when someone’s memorized one of my poems. That is such an honor. Those are the lucky poems, the ones that get memorized.”
David Biespiel is an American poet who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, raised in Houston, Texas, and educated at Stanford University, University of Maryland and Boston University. He is the founder of the Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon, an independent literary studio that is the home for creative workshops and individual consultations for over 800 writers each year.
Gavin Larsen is a faculty member and Children’s Ballet Master at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre.
Joshua Pearl, a songwriter, performer, producer, pianist, and holistic music teacher, is the author of The Whole Musician’s Guide: How To Identify, Develop, Manifest, and Sustain Your Most Authentic Musical Expression. He has been teaching music for over 20 years and has mentored over three hundred students. You can listen to his music at: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/joshuapearl
Julie Maloney holds a B.A. in English from New Jersey City University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Julie performed professionally for several modern dance companies in New York City and was the artistic director, choreographer and principal dancer of the JULIE MALONEY DANCE COMPANY for thirteen years. The University of North Carolina has honored Julie with a Distinguished Alumna Award. In 2003, recognizing a need for writers, Julie founded WOMEN READING ALOUD, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting women writers through special events and workshops. She is a trained workshop leader in the Amherst Writers and Artists Method and leads an ongoing series each fall and spring. Julie lives with her husband of 35 years in Morris County, New Jersey. She has three grown children, all following their dreams, living throughout the United States. PRIVATE LANDSCAPE is Julie Maloney’s book of poetry which reads as a personal revelation, giving an intimate view of what it is like to travel through cancer and rejoice in recovery.
California poet Molly Fisk is the author of Listening to Winter and Salt Water Poems, and of a CD of radio commentary: Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace. She’s a commentator for NPR and community station KVMR-FM Nevada City. Molly invented the popular Internet workshop Poetry Boot Camp, teaches creative writing at U.C. Davis Extension and the Sierra Nevada Cancer Center and gives talks around the country on creativity, feminism, and change. She’s a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and has won the Dogwood and Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prizes, among others, as well as a California Arts Council grant. To learn more about Molly Fisk, visit her website at: http://mollyfisk.com